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Against WSU, Arizona State defense again slips in fourth quarter

The attention focused on Arizona State’s disappointments over the course of its 4-5 start to the year usually begin with the offense.

Those offensive issues — red zone incompetency and inconsistency in the passing game — continued in a 38-24 loss to Washington State on Saturday. The Sun Devils couldn’t convert in the red zone early, turned the ball over late and saw their longest passing play come from the arm of their punter.

But the more concerning theme is that Arizona State’s defense faltered late in the game.

For the third time this season and the second time in three games, the Sun Devils gave up 20 or more points in the fourth quarter.

Near the end of the third quarter, WSU quarterback Luke Falk, who finished with five touchdowns and 497 passing yards, twice found receiver Gabe Marks — an 11-yard strike on 3rd-and-12 and then a 16-yard hit — to move the chains. Later in the drive, Falk hit Kyle Sweet for 36 yards on a 3rd-and-6 to set up a touchdown that put WSU ahead, 24-21, two minutes into the fourth.

Arizona State’s offense sputtered, but a beautiful Matt Haack punt for 54 yards died inside the Cougars’ 1-yard line.

Yet, the Sun Devils’ defense couldn’t solve receiver slants and running back wheel routes. Falk found wideout Robert Lewis for 12 yards for a little breathing room near the Cougs’ goal line and two plays later connected with Lewis for 47 yards. Another two plays of more than 10 yards each would give WSU a 31-21 lead on a 7-play, 99-yard drive that took less than three minutes.

Arizona State cut it to a one-possession game with a stop and a field goal, but Washington State’s Dom Williams immediately took a slant pass for 75 yards, giving the Cougs a two-touchdown buffer with four minutes to play.

“That was about a poor a half on defense as we’ve played,” Graham told media members. “A slant for 70 yards — we played pretty good people and not had that happen. You can’t play defense like that in the second half and expect to have a chance to win.”

And yet, the points scored and big plays allowed are part of a recurring theme.

ASU trailed just 17-14 heading into the final 15 minutes of its season opener but then gave up 21 points in the fourth quarter to Texas A&M. A quick-hit pass to the Aggies’ Christian Kirk, a one-time Arizona State recruit, went 66 yards for a touchdown that broke the Sun Devils’ backs.

Three games ago against Utah, Utes running back Devontae Booker broke for fourth-quarter touchdown runs of 25 yards and 62 yards.

Then came this week and the Cougs’ 21-point outburst capped by Williams.

“I thought we had the game pretty much in control,” Graham told the media after the game. “We gave up 10 points and I think 150 yards of offense (in the first half).  We just made critical error after critical error.”

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